Ali Smith nearly didn’t make it to her talk at the Hampstead Arts Festival in north London. She apologised – she’d had to get a longer train. “Actually,” she clarified, “it was a shorter train, which took longer.” Already, she’d opened our ears to the playfulness of language, got us thinking about the complex ways in which we encounter time and space, and the talk hadn’t yet begun.
Luckily for us, the prize-winning author did make it to an elegant wood-panelled room in Hampstead’s Burgh House to talk about “the life-giving importance of writing and reading” with the broadcaster Piers Plowright. In Smith’s elastic mind, the subject encompassed language, pencils, DNA, animals, “Tristram Shandy”, Alice Munro, St Pancras station, frescos and – most importantly – the perilous state of Britain’s libraries, the subject of her new book, “Public Library and Other Stories”.
Smith is one of many authors, such as Philip Pullman and Julian Barnes, who have made a public stand against the closure of so many libraries. She has put her money where her mouth is with her new book, which she described as a collection of short stories about “the ways in which our public library tradition is being traduced, pressurised, changed and taken from us without us seeing it – and also quite visibly with us seeing it.” To illustrate her point, she relayed a story about a building in Covent Garden with the word “LIBRARY” above its door, but it wasn’t a library at all – it was a private members’ club.
While compiling “Public Library”, Smith asked both friends and strangers why they thought libraries were important, and their comments are interleaved with her stories in the book. One of these comments is from a conversation Smith had with the novelist Kate Atkinson and her daughter Helen Clyne. For Clyne, a public library is “the one place you can just turn up, a free space, a democratic space where anyone can go and be there with other people, and you don’t need money.”
Smith admitted she’s a “bookish kind of a girl”, but she’s aware that libraries are not just about books any more. For many, they now mean access to information and being able to sit down at a computer. How is someone going to live in the world if they don’t have money for a computer and their local library has closed down? She followed up with a worrying statistic: in the seven years since she began writing “Public Library”, a thousand libraries in Britain have been lost, and 28 closed in the month she spent editing it.
Alongside its political agenda, Smith hopes her new book will “honour the private library that we all carry with us”. Fittingly, her talk was peopled with voices from her own private library, as she borrowed the words of José Saramago, John Berger, Christine Brooke-Rose, Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf. While it is impossible not to be saddened, alarmed and outraged by the plight of our public libraries, there is perhaps some small consolation in knowing that Ali Smith’s library has never been more alive.
Hampstead Arts Festival Hampstead, London, until November 29th
Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith is published by Hamish Hamilton